Freedom to Read

By Kate Carroll

 Having just celebrated America’s Independence Day, I pondered all the freedoms we enjoy in this country. Many of the obvious come to mind, but  in particular, I’m thankful for the volumes of books that were available to me throughout my childhood - in school libraries, public libraries, home libraries and bookstores. I have glorious memories of laying on a lounge chair, reading stacks of books in the warm breezes of CT summers.

 But I know, first hand, that not all children have the freedom of reading or owning books. Our daughter, Hope, came to us three years ago from Rwanda as a high school senior and had never read a book for fun. She attended excellent schools, by Rwandan standards, but rarely had a textbook!

In a country like Rwanda, children don’t have the luxury of reading books, visiting libraries, or owning books. The literacy rate is climbing there, but the amount of available reading material is minimal. Rwanda’s adult literacy rate is around 70%, but that is not reflective of the situation in more rural areas of the country. Education is highly valued, but there is little access. Other African countries have alarmingly low statistics. For example, the  countries of Mali and Niger have literacy rates of 33% and 19% respectively, according to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics. Most developing countries face the challenges of expanding education but not having the tools to advance the cause.

Initiatives addressing the lack of literacy through grants and charitable organizations is on the rise. The USAID organization suggests, “Literacy is considered a linchpin in Rwanda's ascendance as a major player in communications and technology on the African continent.”  In Rwanda, pilot programs exist to increase the use of books in primary grades. They even teach teachers how to read stories aloud to increase interest among students. Through a local publishing company, actual picture books created by local authors exist in some elementary schools, giving kids stories that pique their interest. Reading is a key to unlocking amazing opportunities in countries like Rwanda.

Many African countries endeavor to join in the technology age. The emergence of e-books appeals to these impoverished nations and provides easier access to the written word than a physical paper book. It may be that digital reading in some places in Africa will jump over conventional book reading and the paper book will barely exist in their learning culture. Without the tradition of curling up with Mommy or Daddy and reading one’s favorite stories, it’s very possible that populations and cultures will never have that chance.

I believe that the sky’s the limit for joining in the race to advance reading ability in Africa. Check out the foundations below to see how you might help. Or see how your local school districts may take on an initiative to share a book with African students.

On a personal note, Hope caught the reading bug last summer. Here’s a “shout out” to Nicola Yoon for her captivating debut YA novel, Everything, Everything.  Her work marked the beginning of a love relationship with reading for a girl from Africa.  
Friends of Rwandan Education (FRE) is a new non-profit whose goal is to assist Rwanda in achieving their educational goals through cultural collaborations, advocacy and fundraising.The current goal is to build a new secondary school for 800 students.